Cuba wanderlust dims

Amer­i­can cuts daily flights as de­mand lags; Trump ques­tions loom

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Bloomberg News

U.S. air­lines were ec­static ear­lier this year when it was an­nounced that com­mer­cial flights would resume to Cuba after more than 50 years, with one executive at a ma­jor car­rier call­ing it al­most a “once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity.”

Yet as U.S. air­lines be­gin flights this week to Ha­vana, the lon­gawaited travel surge to Cuba is al­ready in doubt.

Cit­ing weak de­mand, Amer­i­can Air­lines Group Inc. trimmed plans for al­most a quar­ter of its flights to Cuba early next year. And in a po­ten­tially crip­pling blow, Pres­i­den­t­elect Don­ald Trump is threat­en­ing to re­scind new re­laxed poli­cies with the is­land na­tion, leav­ing the fu­ture of travel there in limbo. Al­ready, Trump’s com­ments have prompted some trav­el­ers to ac­cel­er­ate plans to visit Cuba be­fore his in­au­gu­ra­tion or to de­lay them un­til he makes his poli­cies clear.

“Peo­ple are afraid Trump is go­ing to close the border again, and then it will be im­pos­si­ble to go there,” said Alexan­dre Chemla, founder of Al­tour, the largest in­de­pen­dently owned U.S. travel agency. “It’s a wait-and-see sit­u­a­tion be­cause of Trump and ev­ery­thing he said.”

Amer­i­can’s de­ci­sion isn’t re­lated to Trump’s po­ten­tial pull­back from Cuba, said Matt Miller, an Amer­i­can Air­lines spokesman, not­ing that the car­rier im­ple­mented its cut the weekend be­fore the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Den­ver-based Fron­tier Air­lines, whose first Ha­vana-bound flight de­parts Mi­ami In­ter­na­tional Air­port on Thurs­day, plans to mon­i­tor that route’s per­for­mance be­fore an­nounc­ing any ser­vice to Cuban cities other than Ha­vana, spokesman Jim Faulkner said.

Ear­lier this year, the ul­tra-low cost car­rier also re­ceived ap­proval for ser­vice to the cities of Ca­m­aguey, Matan­zas, Santa Clara and San­ti­ago de Cuba but has yet to add any of those other des­ti­na­tions to the sched­ule.

“We’ll def­i­nitely keep an eye on the route’s per­for­mance,” Faulkner said.

The un­cer­tainty rep­re­sents a stark turn­around from March when U.S. air­lines sought per­mis­sion to fly al­most 60 daily round trips to Ha­vana, triple the 20 daily fre­quen­cies au­tho­rized un­der the agree­ment be­tween the U.S. and Cuba. They also ap­plied for 10 daily round trips to each of nine other des­ti­na­tions on the is­land.

That fol­lowed Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s executive or­ders last year clear­ing the way for travel agents and the pub­lic to book di­rect flights to the com­mu­nist na­tion as long as trav­el­ers qual­ify un­der 12 ac­cepted rea­sons for a visit, such as ed­u­ca­tional ac­tiv­i­ties or vis­it­ing fam­ily.

Eight air­lines, in­clud­ing Amer­i­can, be­gan ini­ti­at­ing ser­vice to Ha­vana this week, with a to­tal of 500 flights to the city ex­pected to have been com­pleted by year end, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Department of Trans­porta­tion. Flights to smaller Cuban cities be­gan ear­lier this year.

Amer­i­can will cut daily roundtrip flights be­tween the U.S. and Cuba to 10, from 13, start­ing in mid-Fe­bru­ary be­cause of lower than ex­pected de­mand, Miller said. The com­pany also will fly smaller jets on two routes, he said.

Other car­ri­ers, in­clud­ing Delta Air Lines Inc. and Spirit Air­lines Inc., said book­ings so far are in line with ex­pec­ta­tions. Southwest de­clined to com­ment. But air­lines have kept fares low to fill seats, said Paul Berry, spokesman for Spirit, known as an ul­tra-dis­count car­rier.

“When fares are as low as ours, that means there’s a lot of ca­pac­ity,” Berry said.

United Con­ti­nen­tal Hold­ings Inc. isn’t fly­ing to Cuba from South Florida, where there’s “an enor­mous amount” of flights and seats on such routes, chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer An­drew Levy said in an interview Tues­day. The Chicago-based air­line is fly­ing only to Ha­vana, with daily ser­vice from Ne­wark, N.J., and on Satur­days from Hous­ton.

“From what I un­der­stand, it’s go­ing to take a re­ally, re­ally long time for that to be­come a Caribbean des­ti­na­tion that’s as pop­u­lar as some of the other ones that are out there to­day,” he said. “The in­fra­struc­ture just isn’t there. I’m per­son­ally skep­ti­cal about the op­por­tu­nity.”

On Mon­day, days after the death of for­mer Cuban Pres­i­dent Fidel Cas­tro, Trump re­it­er­ated on Twit­ter a cam­paign pledge that he will “ter­mi­nate” Obama’s new trade poli­cies with the is­land na­tion un­less it agrees to “a bet­ter deal.”

Da­nia Rivero and her hus­band Je­sus take their seats Tues­day on United Flight 1502, the first di­rect pas­sen­ger flight from Ne­wark Lib­erty In­ter­na­tional Air­port to Ha­vana. Julio Cortez, The As­so­ci­ated Press

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